' Present sense

Mark Fisher talks to Tom Conti about his starring role in Noel Coward’s Present laughter.

()ne of the biggest box office challenges faced by Elaine C. Smith on her current tour of Shirley lit/entine has been to explain to the love-struck punter that Willy Russell‘s original play is actually a monologue and so, no. Tom Conti isn't in it. But as it turns out. Edinburgh theatre-goers have the best of both worlds. because Conti. the male star of the movie. is turning up in town in his own production of Noel Coward's Present laughter.

Born in Paisley 52 years ago. Conti graduated from the RSAMD in the late 50s. although it was not until the 70s that his ltalian good looks and wry. understated charm helped to put him on the theatrical map. His key stage successes began with C. P. Taylor‘s The Black And White Minstrels, and has consolidated in recent years with Arthur Miller‘s The Ride Down Mount Morgan.

‘There have been 101 museum pieces trotted out that have been imitation Coward and imitation 30s acting and to me they’re just completely dreary.’

‘l don't think of myself as a Scottish actor.‘ he says when I comment on Noel Coward‘s archetypal Englishness. ‘Why would anyone think of themselves as a Scottish actor or an English actor or a Saxon actor?‘ Why indeed. when he‘s had his pick from parts ranging from the west coast remedial teacher in Heavenly Pursuits to the alcoholic hack in Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell. from the angry paraplegic in Whose Life Is It Anyway." to the amorous Creek in Shirley Valentine?

Conti first appeared in Present Laughter. Coward‘s comedy about a womanising actor pursued by adon'ng fans and assorted wives. ex—wives and secretaries in i988 and he has revived and redirected it for the current pre-West End tour. He‘s joined by a glittering cast including Jenny Seagrove. Gabrielle Drake and Judy Loe. ‘Talent isn‘t talent unless it includes the ability to do comedy.‘ Conti says in a Birmingham hotel room. ‘it‘s only a pan-talent. All good actors can play everything. People who can't play comedy. can't play drama. it’s all one skill. if you don't have it. you don‘t have any of it.‘

It‘s not always that actors also have the skill or the inclination to direct. but Conti comes to Present Laughter with experience of directing both in the West End (Before the Party. The Housekeeper) and on Broadway (Last Lie/cs). He admits to having always been a 'meddlesome‘ actor. so the step towards direction is a natural one. His approach to


Present laughter has been to bring a modem sensibility to its period setting. ‘There have been l()l

museum pieces trotted out that have been imitation Coward and imitation 30s acting and to me they're

; just completely dreary.‘ he says. ‘Acting and the style

5 of performing has moved on. Occasionally there are

E people who will say this is not Noel Coward, Noel

Coward should be done in a specific way. That‘s like

i saying Shakespeare should always be done with

! people wearing Elizabethan costumes. I've brought it

5 forward four years from Coward‘s big London production which was set in the present in 1947. This is set in 1951 for one simple reason: the dresses on the girls are much. much nicer. When you compare

the 30s and 40s to the 50s. they don't have a look in.

. The 50s were just stunning.‘

' Costumes notwithstanding, the delivery belongs

{ very much to this end of the century. ‘We‘re not

1! speaking in a silly fashion. we're speaking like

regular people.‘ says Conti. ‘When you do this

z we‘ll sacrifice that; they'll still enjoy the line. but they won‘t actually laugh at it. it‘s a very enjoyable ; piece. We‘ve been packed every night in the pre-

Tom Conti turning on the comedy with Noel Coward

imitation Coward style that actors do so often they bend the words to try and make them fit what they think should be the mode ofspeecli it all to my mind falls apart. it’s quite clear that all the comedy nuances go sailing over. because it‘s actors indulging themselves in something silly.‘

The problem faced by this company seems to be quite the reverse: Coward sets them the task of deciding which comedy nuance to go for. ‘There are so many funny lines in this play that you can't possibly get laughs from them all,‘ Conti enthuses. ‘The thing would be five hours long. You have to say

London tour and the laughter isjust absolutely roaring.‘

Present laughter. Playhouse Theatre, Edinburgh. Mon l7—Sat 22 M'ay.


The List 7—20 May I093 59